Three Rules For Successfully Leading Other Leaders

By Stacey Browning

Many of us get to manage others at some point. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to manage leaders who manage others. This adds a different dynamic.

When presented with this opportunity, leaders shouldn’t assume that the ranks will blindly follow them given their placement on the org chart. Sure, you’ve worked hard to climb the corporate ladder and earned your leadership position. But make no mistake; carrying this attitude too far when making hiring decisions can backfire.

Leaders are never the best at every task they oversee. To succeed, they can’t be afraid to hire people who are better than them at many tasks. It’s a difficult concept for many leaders to get their heads around because their instinct is to resist employing those who could potentially challenge their position or undermine their authority with the staff. It would be much easier to hire a follower.

But as a leader, your job is to build your organization into a high-functioning machine — and that requires acquiring talent. Performance matters, and you want high-performing individuals pushing your organization to improve. Some, if not many, of these individuals should be able to perform aspects of your job better than you can.

Early in my career, I faced a situation that could have caused friction if I had let it. I was asked to lead a software development process even though I wasn’t a coder or an engineer. Several colleagues who knew the technology better than me verbalized that they’d be a better fit for my job. Rather than make an issue of it, I held my ground. I had strengths that they didn’t. I knew the market, and I understood the overall strategy. I honored them for their knowledge, played to their strengths and convinced them that our team approach would best accomplish our larger mission.

The key to success is being bold enough to hire people better than you and giving them authority. In my years in the HR tech industry, these three rules have helped me best lead through others.

1. Empower your top talent.

The process of landing a high-performing leader is complex. The hiring market is competitive, and you must successfully sell your target on a wide variety of issues, starting with his or her role in the company.

But the wooing doesn’t stop when you hire a thoroughbred. It continues through the onboarding process, and if you’re leading correctly, it never ends.

You need to empower your best leaders. That means continually reminding them why they joined the team, how they can help advance initiatives and how important they are to your organization. It also means allowing top performers to stand in for you from time to time so they can take more active roles in helping to recruit senior talent.

Recently, I couldn’t attend a local Chamber of Commerce board meeting about attracting talent to our region. I feel personally invested in the issue, so to ensure our company was helping, I asked one of the leaders from our recruiting team to attend on my behalf.

There are leaders who are afraid to expose their high performers to others outside the company because they’re afraid others will pirate their talent away. That’s a fear-based notion that can hold you back. You may lose some, but that will happen anyway. Empowering your employees by giving them internal and external visibility and giving them control of key tasks helps them become better leaders who can contribute more to your company.

2. Afford freedom through discipline.

Empowering your leaders doesn’t mean letting them run wild. It’s best to set clear guidelines to help them understand your role and theirs — where one ends and the other begins.

All leaders want autonomy. They don’t want their bosses looking over their shoulders. But if the relationship is put on the right footing, they will respect your authority and work to the logical edge of their job description to make you, and the rest of the team, look good.

While this strategy is designed to amplify your direct reports’ strengths, it also helps you prioritize the important tasks in front of you. Decide what tasks you can’t delegate. For example, I’m responsible for a metric around customer retention, so I stay involved with anything directly dealing with this. If senior leaders are driving other initiatives, I don’t have to be involved.

Helping leaders know their limits and allowing them to navigate specific situations on their own will allow them to succeed in their own chain of command as well.

3. Don’t forget to give challenges and feedback.

Budding leaders got to where they are by being driven. They want to grow in their role and continuously learn on the job. While they crave approval, they also want you to give constructive feedback to help them improve.

Sometimes you need to deliver a strong message to get one of your leaders back on track or realize their full potential. Your natural instinct might be to avoid a difficult conversation because overall, your leader is strong, and you don’t want to jeopardize their engagement. But you aren’t doing them any favors by only praising. When giving feedback, be direct and fair in the way you deliver the message. Don’t let loyalty, friendship or a concern about rocking the boat get in the way. Convey your confidence in the leader’s ability to not only correct the situation, but to grow from it.

Other times, feedback might come in the form of giving the leader a new challenge. Perhaps you’ve noticed that the person is confident when talking with large groups of people. This could present a great opportunity to groom the leader to take a more active role as a public speaker representing the company within your industry.

Good leaders are hard to find. They’re expensive to hire and harder to keep. But with the right strategies, you can nurture them and turn your organization into an incubator lab for leaders.

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